Interview with Composer Frank London

[Learn more about this column, “the Politics of Art” by Safia Southey]

Frank London is a New York City-based trumpeter, bandleader, and composer active in klezmer and world music. He also plays various other wind instruments and keyboards, and occasionally sings backup vocals. With The Klezmatics, he won a Grammy award in Contemporary World Music for “Wonder Wheel (lyrics by Woody Guthrie)”. He was knighted in 2016, receiving the Hungarian Order of Merit Knight’s Cross for his far-reaching influence on the Klezmer music as well as his significant contributions to the preservation of Hungarian-Jewish music and culture.

What do you see as the connection between music and activism?

There are a number of ways that music can be a force for social change. Primarily, while music itself is not a direct force in activism, music can mobilize people, raise consciousness, and inspire / elevate the spirits of those who are in the trenches of doing the real activist work. In times like this it is easy to become disheartened by the current abysmal political situation; music is a powerful force to give strength and succor, to help people fight malaise. Hans Eisler said that the musician should be on the front lines of the struggle; singing songs and playing music to support the protests.

You’re known worldwide as the leader of the Klezmer avant-garde. Can you take me through some of your musical trajectories, and how you, with your Grammy-award winning band the Klezmatics, are changing the face of music?

I don’t think of ‘changing the face of music’. Rather, my life and work is deeply connected to history and tradition, and always pays tribute and respect to what came before me. At best, my hope is to be a part of the goldene keyt, the Yiddish ‘golden chain’ that connects us to our ancestors and goes on into the future, growing, changing, but always connected.

The most important things to me are to have both a strong aesthetic sensibility in all my work, and to maintain a committed political and social vision. It is also about collaboration and interaction. Thus, a Cuban-Yiddish opera telling two parallel revolutionary narratives (Taino against Spanish, students against Machado’s fascist government); thus Hasidic-Senegalese music mixing ecstatic traditions of nigunim singing and sabar drumming; thus 1001 Voices – A Symphony for a New America – 250 voices, 80-piece orchestra, tabla, erhu, all singing my melodies and Judith Sloan’s words about open borders.

Your recent project, your multidisciplinary, Spoken Word opera, Salomé: Woman of Valor revisits the myth of the apocryphal figure of Salomé and re-situates her not as a victim but as a revolutionary. How did the composition for this music differ from your other projects?

Each project has its own ontology, its own set of references and identity. Salomé is a live performance piece, and I wanted to create a context for burning group improvisation. The music of Salomé takes elements of Punjabi bhangra, Jewish klezmer, Arabic and Turkish ciftitelli, all with an insouciant use of invented altered modes, with the goal of making an ‘Eastern’ electric-Miles or Tony Williams Lifetime. Fun music for blowing. Under the tutelage of my musical collaborators, we are for the first time using electro-acoustic techniques, our live sound enhanced by our own pre-recorded tracks using Ableton Live. This is a first for me.

You were recently knighted for your contributions to world music but then chose to give this honor back for political reasons; why?

Simply put:
The Hungarian government has been on a disturbing, inexorable course towards intolerance, nativist nationalism, oppression of immigrants, refugees, and their own citizens who are Roma, Jewish, or otherwise ‘different’ minorities.

When I was offered the knighthood, is was for my work celebrating a multicultural Hungary, celebrating minority cultures, and this was explicitly stated in my speech and that of the Government ambassador. This is why I accepted the honor.

After this, the government moved further right, and the same award I was given (Knight’s Cross Order of Merit) was bestowed on, among others, a disgusting journalist who wrote hatefel anti—semitic, anti- Roma (Gypsy) articles. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I didn’t want to be in any club that would have him as a member.

Sadly, our own beloved country [the USA] is following suit…

The great theater director actor and activist Jenny Romaine said that “[Frank London] has a relationship to the avant garde, to jazz, to ethnic music and he’s participating in a late 20th century investigation of Jewish music that I think has a knowledge of all the different aspects of our situation as Jews.” Can you expand on this statement ie how, and in what ways?

Probably not, but I’m happy that she said it.

I think that being a Jew in our world is a complex and challenging gift. I am so happy and proud of my heritage – as I believe everyone should be. I think that she means that I see no contradiction in being clearly a Jew and exploring Jewish culture, music, ideas, etc.; while immersing myself in other cultural traditions, and continually seeing how these worlds and traditions can intersect.

In our current political world it is very tricky to navigate Jewish identity with committed politics. The supporters of the policies of the modern Israeli state are morally bankrupt, but the critics of Israel for the most part conflate ‘Jews’ and ‘Israel’, and are thus in their actions blatantly Jew haters. To make common cause with them is suicidal and ludicrous. If one is a critic of the policies of Israel – which I believe one must be – then you are often rejected by the mainstream of jewish organized life. If you try to work with opponents of Israeli policies, you are often treated with disdain.

Case in point: the organized BDS movement. On one hand, it can be argued that without a clear boycott and severe economic pressure, Israel will not change its policies. On the other hand, the BDS movement has time and again acted in overtly anti-semitic ways.

Jews have always been the whipping post of, well, nearly everyone; as August Bebel said, “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” The left, the right, the rich, the poor. It is contradictory, and no one cares. We are ‘all Communists’ yet we ‘own all the banks’. The only way through this is to maintain pride, love, and joy in our tradition and simultaneously celebrate all traditions.

What advice do you have for politically minded youth currently exploring different platforms to disseminate their beliefs and messages?
Never give an old person a chance to jump on a soapbox, they’ll take it.

Stay committed to your beliefs, but keep your mind open, Not a contradiction. Always work to develop better critical thinking skills. There are always people on all sides who will strongly try to influence you in various ways. The better your ‘bullshit detector’ analysis is, the less susceptible you will be to others’ attempts at manipulation.

Figure out what you’re good at, what you like to do, and work hard to acquire as many skills as possible. This, I believe, will make you more valuable to whatever cause or struggle you are involved in.

And remember to have fun! “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution” (Emma Goldman)

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